Amazon Unbox criticized for Internet chattiness (amongst other things)

Amazon Unbox criticized for Internet chattiness (amongst other things)

Summary: Last week, on the heels of Amazon's Unbox video download service launch, I did a little digging (didn't have to dig far) to find out what digital rights management platform it was relying on to make sure (a) the videos don't get pirated and (b) rentals (essentially downloads that last a certain time) are expired.

TOPICS: Amazon

Last week, on the heels of Amazon's Unbox video download service launch, I did a little digging (didn't have to dig far) to find out what digital rights management platform it was relying on to make sure (a) the videos don't get pirated and (b) rentals (essentially downloads that last a certain time) are expired.  Apple hasn't made a business out of licensing it's DRM technology (FairPlay) and the portable devices on the market generally conform to one of two DRM systems: Apple's FairPlay (which works with Apple's iPods) and Microsoft's DRM which works with everything that claims to be PlaysForSure-compliant.  PlaysForSure is a Microsoft brand. So, it came as no surprise that Amazon's Unbox relies on Microsoft's DRM.  There wasn't much choice. I spent a bit of time in that last blog post analyzing the ramifications in light of the fact that some developers have been very busy as-of-late trying to neutralize Microsoft's DRM.  It's a cat-n-mouse game that I'm not sure the purveyor of any DRM technology can win.

Although I can't guarantee the authenticity of the report, "Dirt Miner" pointed ZDNet readers to a test by IGN showing how FairUse4WM (the hacked-up "utility" for stripping Microsoft's DRM) works on videos that are downloaded from Unbox.  The screen shots look pretty convincing. According to IGN:

We were thus absolutely shocked to learn that Unbox is making use of the Microsoft PlaysForSure DRM system. Only a few weeks ago, a program known as FairUse4WM made headlines when it began to be distributed on the net and was discovered to be able to easily strip PlaysForSure DRMs off of protected content. IGN Gear tested the software on the movies we downloaded from Unbox, and discovered that it can completely strip the DRM from both purchased and rented movies from Unbox. This vulnerability of PlaysForSure has been public knowledge for weeks, and we are amazed that Amazon has launched the Unbox service at this time without some means of better protection.

Looking at that report, the user interface in FairUse4M contains some fairly fetching text that cuts to the chase of what DRM is the opposite of.  It says "Select files to make device independent" (keep in mind that using a utility like this is a violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in the US). 

Also after writing that post though, Unbox was the target of other criticism though, both here on ZDNet and elsewhere.  Here on ZDNet, some of the folks who comment on my post took a much more practical look at Unbox's value proposition and said no thanks.  Under the heading "A bad joke poorly constructed," one frequent ZDNet commenter that goes by the psuedoname Tic Swayback wrote:

Woo-hoo, now we get to pay DVD prices for a movie without the extras, a movie we can only watch on one computer, a movie we can't loan to a friend, a movie we can't take with us and watch everywhere, a movie that we can't re-sell when we're done with it! That sounds like a great deal to me.

Pointing out that customers must actually pay a premium in some cases for that "reduced" value (relative to a DVD), Edward Meyers shared some homework with us:

Unbox is a huge rip-off. I'll give you an example. From the DVD of the Matrix and THX 1138 (2 Movies) cost $7.44 with $0.96 to ship it.  To download just the Matrix on UnBox it costs $9.88.  Boy That is a hard decision.....Even the 24 hour rentals are a rip-[off.] Most of them are $2.99 for a 24 hour rental. The local McDonalds has a Red Box and it is a whole dollar for a 24 hour rental. The Local Movie store is $3.25 for a 5 day rental.  I even gandered at their TV around the world section: For Outlaw Star [Amazon charges] 52.76 to download part of the season (It is missing episodes). The entire Outlaw Star DVD set from RTSI is 53.98. The fact that you can only play the Amazon movies on Windows XP is just another stake in it's heart. Not to mention you aren't getting a physical product and the fact that you can't re-sell your used movies.

Outside of ZDNet, but still in the CNET family (ZDNet is a CNET property), Tom Merritt over at CNET Reviews had more bad news about Unbox based on this tests:

...Even after [a video] downloaded fully, it wouldn't play. I tried several times in both the Amazon player and the regular Windows Media Player, to no avail. After less than two minutes, though, I found that if I dragged the progress indicator in the Amazon player a little, it would start playing. Maybe a bug on my part, who knows?.....

...I left work after that and rebooted my laptop at home. That's when the real trouble began. I noticed that the Amazon player had launched itself. Annoying. I looked in the program for a preference to stop it from launching itself, and there was none. Typical. So I went to msconfig and unchecked Amazon Unbox so that it would definitely not launch itself at start-up. When I rebooted, it was no longer there. However, my firewall warned me that a Windows service (ADVWindowsClientService.exe) was trying to connect to the Net. I clicked More Info in the firewall alert and found it was Amazon Unbox. Downright offensive. It still was launching a Net-connection process that even msconfig apparently couldn't stop. Forget it. That's not the behavior of good software. I went to uninstall it....

Merritt's story is at the root of a pretty steamy thread on Slashdot titled Unbox Calls Home, A Lot.

But not all the news is bad. On a more positive note, there's one feature of Unbox that should be more commonplace with any service where loss of data could be catastrophic. OK.  What loss of data isn't catastrophic? But, let's be honest.  If you acquire DRM'd content from some source on the Internet, you shouldn't have bother backing it up (backups are suggested because in many cases, if DRM'd content is lost, you have to repurchase the content). That source should remember the fact that you acquired the content from them in the first place and let you re-acquire it at anytime at no cost (provided you didn't rent the content and your license is instead for usage in perpetuity).  It's sort of the equivalent of keeping a digital locker. 

Wisely, Amazon has apparently chosen to program Unbox with a feature that remembers what you downloaded.  hat way, your content isn't lost forever if you lose it in a hard drive crash (although having to download it again might be a bummer).  Unbox isn't the only service/technology with this feature. Navio has this same feature built into its platform and, what's even better, is that if your favorite content source uses the Navio platform and you switch devices from one based on Microsoft's PlaysForSure to on based on Apple's FairPlay (like an Apple iPod), Navio can re-supply you with iPod-compatible versions of the content that's in your "locker."  What would be really cool is if there was an online service that could do this for us regardless of where we acquired the content -- in other words, a source and device independent online digital locker.  What would be even cooler though is if we simply got rid of DRM altogether.  After all, what are the hackers developing FairUse4M proving to purveyors of DRM?

Topic: Amazon

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  • Well, I think this is an abomination.

    This is dirty. Amazon is an abomination. 'nuff said.
  • A few corrections and updated Price+Working Link

    OIt should be TRSI (The Right Stuff International)- I buggered it in the original post.

    Also the Price for all 26 Episodes of Outlaw Star on a Single DVD instead of the Box Set is $44.98 (So it is even cheaper)

    [url =]Link[/url]

    This is the URL if I can't link it right...
    Edward Meyers
    • Try it one more time

      [url = ""]Link[/url]
      Edward Meyers
      • They need a help file... one last time

        Edward Meyers
        • It won't work

          Use TinyURL instead. I have wasted countless hours of my life trying to get long-ish URLs (not to mention linked text) to properly work in ZDNet TalkBacks.

          Justin James
          • That last one worked

            It has to be [ followed by url directly followed by = then directly followed by the url then ] . Most boards that allow that require the URL in quotes and allow a space between the = and the url part.
            Edward Meyers
  • Amazing

    Since I posted that a few days ago has already raised all their movie prices a few bucks, as of Monday the price for the Matrix/THX 1138 2 pack is $10.45 and even more amazing is that TRSI lowered their prices 10 dollars. Simply Amazing.
    Edward Meyers
  • Typical

    I know no one likes DRM, including me, but it's a fact of life. The only way to persuade companies from not using it is to not use DRM-based products and services.
  • Possibly DMCA compliant

    You can break protection for interoperability. Hence the phrasing on converting something to be device independent. IANAL, this is not legal advice.

    Still won't prevent DMCA suits though.
    • Where does DMCA say that

      I don't think that's true.. that you can legally break protection for interoperability. If DMCA had that exception in it, the regulation would fall to pieces since everyone breaking protection would claim to be doing it for reasons of interop.

      • Section 1201(f)

        [i](f) Reverse Engineering. - (1) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a)(1)(A), a person who has lawfully obtained the right to use a copy of a computer program may[b] circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a particular portion of that program for the sole purpose of identifying and analyzing those elements of the program that are necessary to achieve interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs[/b], and that have not previously been readily available to the person engaging in the circumvention, to the extent any such acts of identification and analysis do not constitute infringement under this title.

        (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of subsections (a)(2) and (b), a person may develop and employ technological means to circumvent a technological measure, or to circumvent protection afforded by a technological measure, in order to enable the identification and analysis under paragraph (1), or for the purpose of enabling interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, if such means are necessary to achieve such interoperability, to the extent that doing so does not constitute infringement under this title.

        (3) The information acquired through the acts permitted under paragraph (1), and the means permitted under paragraph (2), may be made available to others if the person referred to in paragraph (1) or (2), as the case may be, provides such information or means solely for the purpose of enabling interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, and to the extent that doing so does not constitute infringement under this title or violate applicable law other than this section.

        (4) For purposes of this subsection, the term "interoperability" means the ability of computer programs to exchange information, and of such programs mutually to use the information which has been exchanged.[/i]

        The problem is the courts are ruling on this very narrowly.
        Edward Meyers
    • Not exactly

      You can break the DRM to reverse engineer their program so that yours works in the same maner without violating the DMCA.

      The problem here is that even if you don't get hit with a DMCA violation you can still get hit with breaking the terms of the shrinkwrap contract which prohibits reverse engineering. You can also get hit for violating Patents (All DRM Schemes for content are patented) and Trade Secrets (CSS was held to be a trade secret even after it was widely disclosed- go figure on that one).
      Edward Meyers
  • The Movie wars are over and Apple has won!

    The Movie wars are over and Apple has won!
    I was so excited about being able to download movies home to a media player/computer that I went out and purchased a ?Creative Zen Vision:M?. Please note, this is the player recommended by Amazon. In fact, they are offering $20 in free video downloads if you purchase it from (This fact will be important as you read my review).

    So, my shinny new ?Creative Zen Vision:M?. is on the list supported and my trusty Dell desktop more then exceeds the minimum system requirements. , yet installing the software took almost an hour. One I resolved the software conflict; I setup an account and purchased my first movie. Down load wind informed me that my movie would take about two hours so I cooked dinner, cleaned up the kitchen and settled in for a night of movies and TV classics ?NOT!

    As you may have guessed, the movie did not download as it said it would. So I call Amazon tech support. After about two hours on hold I?m that you have to tell the media player to down load your purchase movie. Ok, I thought this was a bit odd, you?d think that by forking over $15 of cold hard cash would cause for downloading to commence. Affter an additional 2 hours the movie downloaded, at this point it late and I'm too frustrated to watch the move so I head off to bed.

    The next day I tried to move the move over to my ?Creative Zen Vision:M? -the move won't transfer. This is the same player recommended by Amazon, the same player advertise prominently on with $20 of free video downloads. I check the specks on Amazon?s UnBox site a second time to make sure I have a supported player (who knows, maybe the marketing wiz kids screwed and put their push behinded the wrong player).

    According to Amazon?s web site my player is supported. So I called Amazon and after a long wait I get another rep that says even though the device is listed on the site as supported it's not a guarantee that it will work. What?!?!

    There might be a happy ending to my story; today I went to Best Buy and exchange my Zen player for an Apple iPod. I?m not happy about Apple?s DRM monopoly, but my desire to rent/purchase movies online, messured with Best But sales person?s push that iPods/iTunes just works convinced me. This is my first Apple product and I'm hoping it will work. Unfortunately iTunes offers few movies, and you can?t rent them either. However, iTunes works so I'll stick it out with Apple as I'm sure they'll get more movies.
  • Look before you leap!!!

    Less than 24 hours after it was officially launched, I installed Amazon's Unbox video downloader/player application on my PC. Having just recently purchased a Toshiba Gigabeat S (the black 60 GB model) I have been spending about as much time searching for and installing new content to it as I have spent listening to it. Before trying to use the Unbox service I spent about an hour reading the installation instructions, FAQ, and TOS. Oddly, I found almost no discussion of portable devices, much less any list of compatible devices, support or instructions for sync'ing and use. There were passing references to portable devices, but no real nuts & bolts walk-thrus, etc. one might expect from a mass-market, user-friendly service such as Amazon.

    Ultimately I decided to surrender to intuition. I launched the Unbox application and, after checking the Help file (in vain) I clicked on the "Devices" tab. There I found a message stating "Device not detected". I proceeded to connect my Gigabeat to my PC via USB cable, power it on and click the Unbox application's refresh button on the devices tab. The screen on my Gigabeat flickered to life but, instead of displaying the familiar "Connected" message (as is typical with Rhapsody, WMP 10, and Vongo connections) a previously unknown message to the effect of "Remove Media" briefly appeared and then disappeared. The Unbox application then showed my device as successfully recognized.

    However, somewhat less encouraging was the display showing 57 GB of available storage space. In a nutshell, Amazon's Unbox software formatted my Gigabeat hard drive without any warning or request for permission. The entirety of my roughly 50 GB multimedia collection had been unexpectedly deleted in less than 20 seconds from the point I connected my device. This included MP3s ripped from my CD collection, purchased from online music stores and downloaded & licensed from my Rhapsody-to-Go subscription, several hundred digital photos, and video files including movies ripped from my DVD collection, tv programs transferred from Tivo-2-Go, and feature films downloaded and licensed from my Vongo subscription. Collectively these files had taken untold hours to download, convert, and upload to my Gigabeat. All that was left is a still-unresolved problem with my DMR licensing rights that were apparently scrambled by the Amazon software. Despite spending half of my afternoon on the phone with tech support for Rhapsody, as yet I am still unable to download anything from my Rhapsody-to-Go subscription to my Gigabeat.

    I contacted Amazon's support department via e-mail and explained the sequence of events in detail. The response I received a day later apologized for any inconvenience and blamed the drive formatting episode on my having used a device not yet "thoroughly tested" or approved by Amazon. With that, they sent me a link to the "Approved Devices" page I was never able to find. I was suprised to find that only six (6) devices are currently supported and, thus, "guaranteed" to work with the Unbox software. I was even more suprised to see that my Toshiba Gigabeat S is, in fact, one of those approved devices. Notwithstanding the fact that I had mentioned the make and model of my portable device 5 or 6 times in my e-mail to Amazon support, they ignored this and, in effect, failed to offer any credible reason for problems occurring with one of their supposedly "tested" and "compatible" devices.

    Unless and until Amazon can either explain or resolve the spontaneous formatting of a preferred portable device, I plan on holding off any further use of the Unbox product. Unfortunately, the unauthorized Internet access and spyware-like behavior described in CNET's 9/08/06 Buzz Out Loud podcast (titled "Stay Away From Amazon Unbox") only compounds my skepticism for the state of the software at present. I hope this post helps others to make an educated decision on whether to use the Amazon software, too.